As the United States Women’s National Team prepares to defend its World Cup crown, TopDrawerSoccer is profiling some of the players heading to their first World Cup, providing a snapshot of their development in club and college soccer.
For Emily Sonnett, a coach’s decision when she arrived at college set her on course for the 2019 U.S. World Cup squad.
A standout attacking midfielder at NASA Elite during her club days, Sonnett was an attacking force from Georgia during the recruiting process. She finished her high school career at Fellowship Christian School in 2012 with 113 goals and 41 assists. A hard-working a ruthless center midfielder, she could score goals and create with the best of them in her age group.
When she arrived at Virginia in the fall of 2012, head coach Steve Swanson (also an assistant with the USWNT) thought to give her a look at the back.
“When I got to college, Steve decided I was going to play center back,” Sonnett told reporters earlier this month. “The defensive learning curve took a while but I’m very thankful. The college portion of my career set me up to be here because that was the first time I played defense in general.”
Her club coach at NASA, Dave Smith, recalled the back-and-forth from her position change:
“Somebody got hurt, they asked her to step in and play center back and I remember her texting me, calling me and saying ‘I’m not a center back, what am I going to do?’ I said, ‘you’re getting a chance to step on the field for UVA. You go be the best center back they’ve ever seen and then next year, get into training you can try to work your way into a different scenario if you want. But if you’re given an opportunity to get on the field, you need to go show them how good you are and you can be the best center back that they have.’ I guarantee there’s still part of her that’s still mad she did so well at that spot.”
Obviously, making the adjustment from a more forward-thinking player into a defender is far from a straightforward swap. But a lot of the traits Sonnett possessed at the time made it a natural fit: from her on-ball ability, passing, athleticism and work-rate, there was a good reason why she ended up at the ACC powerhouse.
The position switch was something that Swanson had considered before an injury popped up as well.
“She came in and I always thought in the back of my mind that she had the qualities to play in the back, but when you looked at our team her freshman year, with the players that we had, it was trying to piece together this team where you felt we could be the strongest,” he said. “Obviously Emily was going to be part of that, but it was trying to figure out where she belonged.”
Over the course of her four years at Virginia, she earned a slew of individual honors as she grew into her role. From the ACC All-Freshman Team in 2012, to All American honors from the NSCAA and Best XI honors from TopDrawerSoccer.com. In her senior season, she was the ACC Defensive Player of the Year. After emerging as one of the top college defenders in the country, she anchored Virginia’s run to the College Cup in 2013 and 2014, where they fell to Florida State in the national championship game her junior year.
Along with the accolades, Sonnett developed a reputation of a player that was unafraid to get forward when she won the ball high up the field, a throwback to her days as a No. 10. There were several moments, including a crucial goal against UCLA in the quarterfinals of the 2014 NCAA Tournament (see highlight below), where Sonnett would win the ball, connect with teammates and charge up the field to influence proceedings offensively. It’s not a role she fulfills now with the national team, but it left an impression on her head coach.
“She could make some amazing runs,” Swanson said. “I still remember a run she made against Boston College, where she literally won the ball at the halfline, took the ball up the field, played a combination with Caroline Miller and scored. That to me, I felt like she could redefine what it is to be a center back in college and I think she did with all her skills and the way she thinks the game and her competitiveness.”
But her path from a dominant senior season in 2015 to the 2019 World Cup squad was far from a straightforward one. Picked No. 1 in the 2016 NWSL Draft, she earned a spot as an alternate to the Olympic squad that year. In her rookie season, she made 16 appearances, all starts for the Portland Thorns. In 2017, she took a step forward in terms of minutes played, starting 26 games and playing 2,340 minutes. But despite the jump in minutes played, she found herself outside of the USWNT picture, not earning call-ups for a six-month period.
At the end of the 2017 season – her second with the Thorns – she recalled deciding whether or not to spend the NWSL offseason playing in Australia in the W-League, a common destination for NWSL players to stay sharp during the North American winter. She paid tribute to that choice (spending the 2017-18 season with Sydney FC), as it sparked her into a strong 2018 and return to the national team picture.
“I was sitting in my old apartment and deciding to go to Australia to play,” Sonnett said about her decision in 2017. “That’s when I [hadn’t] come into camp for about five to six months. I took a chance to go to Australia, get games underneath my belt and get back into the swing of things [in national team camp].”
Since she left Charlottesville, her college coach has had the chance to continue to work with her, as Swanson assists Jill Ellis with the USWNT. He’s seen his former converted center back continue to make the improvements and adjustments to make the World Cup roster. That includes the versatility of playing as an outside back, along in the middle.
“She’s developed an awful lot in the subtle aspects of defending and I’ve seen that more,” Swanson said. “She’s really passionate about the game and she is always trying to learn and she was always a student of the game, and she’s very coachable.”
Her old club coach Smith has been following her career since she left Georgia, and Sonnett traveling to a World Cup has been a development a long time in the making.
“She’s the kid that this has been her goal and she’s been tunnel-vision on making it happen,” Smith said. “I’m sure there are other people that have worked a tremendous amount to get on that roster as well, but she’s worked every bit as hard as anybody. So happy and proud of her.”
With reporting from Jeff Kassouf (Equalizer Soccer).